Every now and then, I find myself thinking about the latest addition to my identity. The recent war in Israel, and the European anti-Semitism and hate wave that accompanied it, made me think about it a little more. “The whole world is against us” is more than just a song Israelis grew up on. There isn’t a living Israeli who didn’t experience one form or another of war, terrorism, or being under an attack. There isn’t a living American who had to fight to defend US proper – the actual physical country. We are talking home, not a forsaken land half way across the ocean, where an American soldier is sent to liberate, defend, or show the light to people of a very different culture, language, and value set. Getting ready to use my American passport for the first time makes me think about it much more. It is from this place, that my citizenship interview seems removed from the true meaning of being a citizen. After all, being a citizen [of either of my countries] doesn’t mean I agrees with everything politicians say, do, pitch, believe in, and too often, want to send the army to fight for, die for. It means that I agree with the core values and principles that make a country what it is. It means that I’m willing to sacrifice a lot to ensure this country stays around, even if and when its day-to-day practice goes against some of my beliefs. In Israel, land and how to treat the other, how to democratically manage the diversity that was a priori to the establishment of the state are critical components of my comfort with the ruling cocktail of parties, beliefs and interests. Right now I rather not drink this cocktail. In the US, which has been around a little longer, it’s global warming, war on women, and immigration. Social responsibility and community, as in caring for your neighbor are key too. And let’s say nothing about the healthcare mess. The surprising and uncomfortable insight, hard to accept or admit, is that today, or last month, or on May 21st or 22nd, my sworn in day, I was more comfortable, more at ease, with making that commitment to the US than I would have been if I had to re-commit to Israel. I’m not ready to give up this loyalty, this key component of my identity. But… None of this, nothing at all, went through my head when I went in for the citizenship interview. It was early April. On time, past security, I found myself in a big waiting room. A quick visual scan of the room returned with an Indian
majority. A close second was the Mexican, or maybe I should say Latino/Hispanic. Third was the Chinese delegation, and then it was the rest of the world; a Brazilian couple, and one or maybe two more Caucasian couples. One of the Caucasian couples, as well as one of the Chinese, came with a lawyer/translator, others came with kids. I thought I heard Hebrew, but wasn’t too sure. As bureaucracy goes, you need to submit your form NOT at the window with the sign that says so, but at the one to its right. Right there they got it wrong. After a while you realize that the sign is there just to confuse you. I flipped through the booklet with the 100 questions and extra answers, some of them are actually interesting. Patience.
The immigration officers are a diverse bunch. Seems that just like the waiting room, white is a minority. I love California. My people curiosity and its diversity paired well. Many of the names of the citizen wannabes present a pronunciation challenge, from the single or double syllable Chinese, to the how-do-you-pronounce-this-very-long-Indian-name-I’m-out-of-air names. To the officers’ credit, they make an effort to pronounce every wannabe’s name. And then it’s my turn. “Wagner…” and her tone goes up a notch with a typical question intonation. I’m considering taking an offense. 5-Syllable names get pronounced, though not without hesitation, and yet my two syllable, 4-letter name is considered so complicated, too challenging, that I’m the ONLY person that gets called by last name only. One could have said it’s anti-Semitism, but with Wagner for a last name, it’s really hard to make the case. Never thought of my name as a four letter word, but apparently, for most Americans, it is. I get up, smiling to myself, and meet Lupe [I think]. A big woman, and it turns out that with a matching big heart. Her first question, before we even make it to the interview room [read: her office] is, “How do you pronounce your name.” Touché. I say it, she repeats it a couple of times, and tells me about her life long-suffering due to her own unusual name. She goes on to tell me how hard she tries to properly pronounce every interviewee’s name, and admits that when she can’t, as is the case with some of the longer Indian names, she tries to match the application photo to a person in the waiting room… unless it’s me I think to myself. 15-20 minutes later, we exhausted the topic, including her Starsucks and other calorie providers’ fake name. I keep it simple, I admit. My name is “just the letter ‘Y’ please.” OK, so you know I love coffee, you know how to pronounce my name, more or less, now how any of it will help you determine if I am the kind of person you’d want to welcome as a citizen of your country? Have I been a member of a terrorist organization, she wants to know. “I grew up in Israel,” I say. “We fight terrorism.” She didn’t like it. “I have to ask these questions.” And then there’s a question about Nazism or something else. The Israeli association of Wagner & Nazism on one hand, and growing up as an Israeli with Wagner for a last name completely escapes her. Flipping through my application, she handed me a list of international trips. My trips, and asks me to confirm that these are all the trips I took since I got my green card. Not even close. “There’s a whole page missing.” Is it a test? I couldn’t tell. “There wasn’t enough space in the form, so I included an additional page with all my trips,” I added. “I have a copy of it here if you need it.” Working on that excel spreadsheet was my painful 2013 Thanksgiving project. I recall that it was 21 trips for the last 5 years. Make it 22, I took another trip in February. She asked for the dates. Thanks to mobile calendar and mobile boarding passes, I could provide the specific dates. She didn’t want my complete list. And I still wonder, was it a test? And if so, why? What for? “What is freedom of religion,” she asked. And I answered, “The freedom to practice any religion, or not practice a religion.” I had to read a sentence, write a sentence, there is a couple more questions, and then it’s something along the lines of “You are welcome to join this great nation.” You may be sworn in this month, or, if we already met the space limitations, you’ll be invited next month.” I get a note saying that I met all citizenship requirements, and it recommends my citizenship approval. It was all over, waiting included, in just about 70 minutes. What an anticlimax. So I took the rest of the day off. And time and again I think about what defines one’s identity.